Over the last few days I have been transported to far away lands to accompany brave young heroines on epic journeys and I have loved every moment of it. The publishers Nosy Crow had sent me a proof copy of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant a debut by Nizrana Farook and I had earmarked it to read this month to coincide with its publication. I had also decided to add the winner of the Costa Book Award for best children’s book to my reading list. Earlier this month Asha and The Spirit Bird by Jasbinder Bilan published by Chicken House, another debut, was announced as the winner. These two wonderful books complemented each other well and ensured a very enjoyable reading week.
First of the two was The Girl Who Stole an Elephant selected as Waterstone’s Children’s Book of the Month. Set in Sri Lanka this is an exciting adventure featuring an irrepressible and brave heroine. Chaya is a thief who steals from the rich to help those in need or in trouble, however this time she has gone too far. Chaya has stolen the queen’s jewels. This has serious repercussions that she had never anticipated which result in her best friend Neelan paying a huge price for Chaya’s recklessness. She is determined to put things right. However things don’t go to plan and Chaya, Neelan and their companion, Nour flee by riding the King’s stolen elephant into the Sri Lankan jungle where their adventure becomes even more dangerous.
The setting is beautifully drawn in this fast paced story and the descriptions are full of interest for young readers who will, I think, find jungle life captivating. There are moments of great tension and the short chapters, frequently ending in a cliff hanger, are packed with excitement and drama, making this perfect for children who may lack reading stamina. You are carried along on a wave of thrills and danger from the dramatic opening lines onward. This would be wonderful read aloud in schools and would have a wide appeal. The interplay between the characters is interesting and felt believable. We watch as the characters develop, particularly Chaya, and their attitudes to each other alter. This book had a fresh and original feel yet still retained at its heart the classic epic adventure journey. A wonderful story.
Jasbinder Bilan author of Asha and the Spirit Bird won the 2017 Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition with this inspiring story of two children who undertake a dangerous journey into the Himalayan mountains. Beautifully written and both touching and uplifting this is a thoughtful story about the importance of family and being brave to help those you love.
Asha misses her father who is away working in the city, money is tight and her mother is tormented by a ruthless moneylender. Asha resolves to find her father and put things right before it is too late. She and her best friend Jeevan face an arduous journey across the mountains suffering tiredness and hunger and they are running out of time. Asha’s mother will leave for England if she cannot repay the moneylender by the time of Divali just a few weeks away.
The children experience both good and bad on their mammoth journey and their friendship grows stronger as a result. They face the dangers of wolves, tigers and devious, wicked junkyard owners and are helped by kindly shepherds. Throughout it all Asha is sustained by the sense that her ancestors, particularly her grandmother, are watching and guiding her. I enjoyed this story very much and the descriptions of the lands the children pass through, the food they eat and other details brought their world to life vividly for me. Books such as this one enable children to learn as they read without it feeling as though they are being taught. The glossary at the start of the story is helpful too. There is tenderness and care in the relationships and the author allows the friendship between Asha and Jeevan, on the cusp of adolescence, to hint at the possibility of it developing into something more. Her religion is important to Asha and the spirituality and her strong family bond even to those who are no longer with her is touching. She, like Chaya in The Girl Who Stole an Elephant, is brave and she is, I think, an extremely engaging character. Highly recommended for both reading for pleasure and as a class book which would prompt discussion and links to the curriculum.
Children’s books are somewhat neglected in the main stream media unless they are written by the ‘big names’. These two excellent debuts are shining examples of the high quality children’s literature available and I hope that their exposure will be heightened by their success as an award winner and a book of the month in shops on the high street.
Thank you to Nosy Crow publishers for providing my review copy of The Girl Who Stole an Elephant.